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Series on the draft outlook for the Pittsburgh Steelers begins with quarterbacks

Is it time for the Steelers to look for the eventual successor to Ben Roethlisberger? SCI's Jim Wexell tosses the question around and has answers at all levels.

It was just one of so many mock drafts released in early April, but this one lit a fuse on the SteelCityInsider.net  message board with not one but two heated conversations about the drafting, by Yahoo.com, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, of quarterback Cardale Jones in the second round.

Jones, you may recall, is the Ben Roethlisberger-sized (6-5, 253) Ohio-born (Cleveland) QB who stepped in late in 2014 and led Ohio State to wins over No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Oregon on the way to a national championship.

Jones stepped off the bench and completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 16.1 yards per completion with five touchdown passes and two interceptions. The Buckeyes averaged 48 points per game against those defenses and the clamoring began for the big, mobile QB with an arm so strong he was nicknamed "12-Gauge" to come out for the draft.

But he went back to school, even after losing his position coach -- the famed "QB Whisperer," Tom Herman -- to the University of Houston. Both teams lost only once, which was great for Houston but not so much for Ohio State, and in particular for Jones, who started eight games and scored 48 points only once, against Maryland (49), before losing his job. His completion percentage was up to 62.3 percent, but his yards-per-completion sagged to 13.4 and his TD-Int ratio was a lackluster 8-5.

The problem? Well, perhaps because Jones was forced to spend a year at Fork Union Military Academy as a "non-qualifier" before coming to Ohio State, and perhaps because during his redshirt year in 2012 he infamously tweeted a lament about going to class, the knock on Jones is that he's not smart enough, that he can't read defenses.

He, of course, dismissed that notion at the NFL Combine when he was asked why he came out for the draft with another year of eligibility remaining.

"I think the experience I gained this past year," he said. "The size, ability, and my knowledge of the game, my smarts. I don't think I get a lot of credit for how cerebral I am when it comes to being the quarterback. I think I'm ready for that level. Only time will tell."

Most analysts have put a fourth-round grade on Jones, but with that size, mobility, athleticism and arm strength, quarterbacks like Jones tend to get drafted at least a round earlier than expected. And if the Steelers want to begin grooming a quarterback with that type of skillset, it's unlikely they're going to get him late in the third round.

It appears the second round would have to be the target, and that's where most fans draw the line because Roethlisberger, while slowing down at 34, hasn't shown any signs that his end is near. In fact, the Steelers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and most believe a second-round defender would help that immediate goal more than a No. 3 rookie quarterback.

It's a quality argument, one with which a team looking at how poorly Jones handled his success last season would likely agree. So that leaves mid-rounders such as Christian Hackenberg, Dak PrescottKevin Hogan and Nate Sudfeld with the size and desired tools in line behind a quartet of first-round prospects.

But there are a handful of others who interest me later, in, say, the sixth round, who could develop as third-teamers.

Jacoby Brissett (6-3 3/4, 231) of North Carolina State may not make it to the end of the sixth round for the Steelers, but with this rather large crop it's possible.

Brissett put up 41 points against Clemson, the most surrendered by the Tigers all season (until Alabama scored 45 in the national title game). In that game, Brissett was hounded virtually every snap and had few open targets, but he still managed to show touch, accuracy and mobility. Off the field he's praised for his football and personal character and his work habits.

Russell Wilson spent most of his college career at N.C. State and Brissett got to know him. "I’ve been able to work at his camp two times, and been around him a little bit," Brissett said at the Combine. "He just said it’s a business, you gotta work at it, that it’s a job that you never fully understand, fully know and fully have all the answers to. You just gotta go out there and work."

And that's what Brissett has done since transferring from Florida for the 2014 season.

Speaking of Wilson (5-10 5/8. 200, 6.97 3-cone), the propsect most physically comparable to the Seattle QB in this draft is Oregon's Vernon Adams (5-10 7/8, 200, 6.83 3-cone), who lit up the Shrine Bowl after finally recovering from injuries.

Adams, who had played three years at Eastern Washington, played last season at Oregon as a graduate transfer and was allegedly cheap-shotted by one of his former EWU teammates in the opener. Adams didn't get back to full health until November, when he directed Oregon to score more points against Stanford and USC than any other team all season. Adams was injured again in the regular-season finale and didn't recover until his scintillating Shrine Bowl performance.

When healthy, Adams was outstanding in 2015. But, of course, the injuries that explain an up-and-down season also indicate that durability could become an issue for a small QB in the NFL.

Another quality PAC-10 QB prospect who should last into the later rounds is USC's Cody Kessler.

If you watch Kessler (6-1 1/4, 220), you'll see that he takes too many sacks (38 in 2015), but you'll also see accuracy (67.5 completion percentage), intelligence and few interceptions (5-1 TD-INT ratio). You might also wonder how well he would've looked had he received the chance to throw to all of those wide-open receivers under former USC coach Pete Carroll.

Kessler, a big-time local recruit, worked his way through four coaches in five years, retained his focus on the game and has some analysts believing he's a quality sleeper in this draft.

Another quality late-round prospect is Arkansas' Brandon Allen (6-1 3/8, 217).

The rare college QB who took most of his snaps under center, Allen was also a highly recruited local prep player who never had things easy. Like Kessler with an ever-changing coaching staff, Allen also dealt with disgruntled fans who egged his truck following a loss in in 2013 and then just lit the thing on fire prior to the start of the 2014 season.

The knock on Allen is that his hands, at 8 7/8 inches, are too small. He's also alleged to have a below-average arm, but anyone watching him put up 50 on Mississippi State last season might not agree.

Allen threw for 406 yards and an SEC-record seven touchdown passes in the only Arkansas loss of its final seven games. And the Razorbacks shouldn't have lost that one. Allen led his team from its own 10 to the Miss State 12 in the final minutes, but a 29-yard field goal was blocked with 46 seconds remaining and Arkansas lost by a point.

Instead, it was Miss State's QB, Prescott, who received all the glory. "Best player I ever coached," said his coach.

But Allen, with his brains, mental toughness and mobility, could make for an interesting developmental prospect.

TOP FIVE

1. Paxton Lynch, 6-6 5/8, 244, Memphis.

2. Carson Wentz, 6-5 1/4, 237, North Dakota State.

3. Jared Goff, 6-4, 215, California.

4. Connor Cook, 6-4, 217, Michigan State.

5. Cardale Jones, 6-5, 253, Ohio State.

STEELERS VALUE BOARD

Sixth Round -- Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State; Vernon Adams, Oregon; Cody Kessler, USC; Brandon Allen, Arkansas.


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